Generation 40s – 四十世代

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If education reform is a priority in Singapore and Australia, why not in Hong Kong?

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong


Kerry Kennedy says the system needs to be reformed at every level. Schools should be less exam-oriented, vocational education should not be second best, and the University Grants Committee should nurture creativity, not nip it in the bud


As the chief executive’s policy address approaches, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has the opportunity to create a new and vibrant education system. The world around us continues to change at a rapid pace. Yet, across all sectors of education in Hong Kong, there is little creativity or acknowledgement that change is needed.

The government’s review of the school curriculum drags on with little opportunity for public debate or discussion. The vocational education sector continues to be weighed down by poor public perceptions and underfunding. The University Grants Committee continues to restrain universities by measuring inputs and outputs, rather than supporting creativity and growth. The whole system is stagnating rather than innovating.

In other jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Australia, the reform of education is high on the political agenda. Although Singapore tops international assessments such as Pisa, its government wants students to do more than pass tests and examinations.

The Australian government has received a landmark report that recommends replacing national testing with more formative assessments that can help all students to learn. The focus in both jurisdictions is on students and how they can be better prepared for a challenging future – a future which is driven by technology and artificial intelligence, and which will need to be harnessed with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The reform of education in Hong Kong needs to be system-wide. Schools need to be able to provide curriculum experiences that allow students access to the latest thinking in maths, science and humanities. There is important content in these subjects but also significant processes linked to critical thinking and problem solving.

Singapore, for example, is reorienting its exam system to ensure these skills, rather than rote learning, figure prominently. All students in Hong Kong – especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – need to have access to these skills. But graduates of such a system need to have relevant post-school options.

The vocational education system needs upgrading to focus on fields relevant to the city’s future development. It cannot continue to be the second choice for those who do not get into public universities.

Countries such as Germany have shown how a well-regarded and funded vocational education system can propel innovation in strategic areas of development. Linking vocational education institutions and universities in Australia has demonstrated the kind of synergy that is possible when all elements of an education system work together.

In number, Hong Kong universities are few. Yet in terms of performance, as measured by international rankings, the quality is high. However, the vision of universities is constrained by the grants committee, as demonstrated by the recent case of City University’s veterinarian programme.

It was only the vision of the university’s president that drove the programme’s development. Now Hong Kong has a much needed public resource, but it took a decade to convince the UGC. Universities are natural places for innovation and they must be allowed to play their roles, without the burden of external regulation and intrusive oversight.

If the universities are not centres of the city’s innovative culture then funds are being wasted. If the UGC spends more time nurturing innovation and less time measuring and auditing, Hong Kong’s universities can scale even greater heights.

A massive reform is necessary after the stagnation of the past five years. It is an agenda that may not please everyone. Unsettling the way things are done, setting new directions and expecting better outcomes will be challenging for many people already in the system.

Yet the alternative is to do nothing or make marginal changes that will not make a difference. Hong Kong’s future can be brightened by a proper functioning education system producing at all levels graduates who can be change agents and innovators in their different areas of work.

It will take courage to expect changes across a broad front. Yet such expectations have to made clear, so individuals and organisations can step up and do what is required.

Far from faddish, they are changes needed to meet the future needs of Hong Kong and its young people in a challenging national and international environment. It is to be hoped that the chief executive is up to the challenge.

Professor Kerry Kennedy is adviser (academic development) at the Education University of Hong Kong


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If Hong Kong encroaches on ‘one country’, don’t cry when China erodes ‘two systems’

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong


Philip Yeung says free speech in Hong Kong universities must have limits, if the city is to maintain the delicate balance of ‘one country, two systems’. It is one thing to have students fighting for universal suffrage, quite another for them to advocate separation


Free speech is a sacred cow in universities. Every academic leader worth his salt swears to uphold it. However, as its limits are being tested, it has become a contentious, but also fuzzy, concept. A year ago, 10 university presidents issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to “Hong Kong independence”.

But opposing it and banning talk of it are not the same thing. The head of Chinese University, for example, says that as long as the topic is discussed rationally and nonviolently, it is permissible, to which independence activists reply that they are in full compliance. The government wants to set a third condition: the activity in question must not breach Hong Kong law. Its argument is compelling. For, how do you defend something that is illegal? 

Barely into the first week of the school year, student leaders of three local universities have used the inauguration ceremony to spout off about being in favour of an independent Hong Kong. Like a spreading virus, they are sure to be followed by their peers in other universities.

But what is there to discuss? The topic is dead on arrival. Illegality aside, it is sheer insanity. Hong Kong can’t afford self-rule. Without China, it is doomed. Even our water supply comes from the north. Why waste time listening to the dribble of historically ignorant hotheads who are still wet behind the ears?

When Time magazine looked into the soul of Andy Chan Ho-tin, leader of the Hong Kong National Party, it found nothing there, no political road map, no author that has inspired him, no knowledge of Hong Kong history or Chinese history, and no roots.

In other words, this activist and his ilk are products of our failed education system. Instead of teaching them history, it fed them a wishy-washy subject called Liberal Studies that is supposed to be conducive to critical thinking. Students are critical all right, but only in a knee-jerk fashion.

In an alarming survey, 60 per cent of the under-30 demographic polled supported Taiwan independence. In this year’s DSE examinations, just over 10 per cent of the candidates took Chinese history, a subject that ought to have been mandatory. As a discipline, history is on life support in high schools and universities.

Until their joint statement, the different academic leaders handled student activism differently. At the height of the so-called “umbrella movement”, Baptist University president Albert Chan Sun-chi took a principled stand against students who carried yellow umbrellas at graduation ceremonies, refusing to hand them their degrees unless they conformed to decorum.

Tony Chan, his Hong Kong University of Science and Technology counterpart, dared not stir up the hornet’s nest and decided to be cute, calling such disruptive behaviour “creative”. For that, he was ridiculed as spineless. These are not good times to be university presidents. They have to walk a tightrope between tolerating disruptive student dissent and protecting free speech. Most tend to handle rebellious students gingerly.

Once “Hong Kong independence” reared its ugly head, however, it put a different complexion on the matter. Fighting for universal suffrage is one thing, advocating separation is quite another. The former falls under “two systems”, but the latter is a dagger thrust at “one country”.

Free speech purists forget this city has agreed to play by a different set of rules after the handover. If we accept the “one country, two systems” model, we must abide by what it entails. If we encroach on “one country”, then we mustn’t complain if it erodes “two systems”.

There is a delicate balance to be kept on this interactive principle, where more of one means less of the other. If you respect “one country”, you get more room under “two systems”. If you keep testing the limits of “one country”, then you can expect a tightening of “two systems”. To borrow a cliché, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

Remember that, though it irks Beijing, Hongkongers are still free to stage street protests over human rights issues. That’s nothing to be sneezed at, considering that we are now part of China. Would Britain, for all its vaunted respect for political rights, have tolerated open revolt for Hong Kong independence and hostility towards the sovereign during its rule? I think not.

Remember, too, that China has been fighting American encirclement. Hence, its determined effort to protect the vital sea lanes in the South China Sea to ensure the free flow of commerce for its booming economy. Hong Kong activists who openly fraternise with Taiwan separatists are treasonably playing with fire. Intoxicated by their 15 minutes of fame, courtesy of the international media, they are provocatively calling China a “neighbouring country”.

Universities should starve them of the oxygen of publicity and deny them venues for poisoning the minds of their peers. They should be shunned like outcasts who are on the wrong side of the law.

Would the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, for all its high-mindedness, have invited members of the Ku Klux Klan to speak? Free speech implies the exchange of considered views of informed minds. Why give empty-headed loudmouths a megaphone to spout an idea that has no life?

Should independence-related talk be taboo on campus? Well, not quite. I see value in public debate about the causation of local separatism, with sky-high rents and low wages crushing the dreams of the young. Beyond condemning their waywardness, we must understand it. To me, their rebellion smells like an impotent rage against a rat race they cannot win. Maybe it is not independence they want. It is hope they need.

Philip Yeung is a ghostwriter to university presidents and civic leader

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Why do so many Chinese study abroad, when local universities are already among the world’s best?

Back in 1973, while a student in Norwich in England, I funded my study by teaching foreign students English.

If I had been more inquisitive and worldly at the time, I would have wondered how it was that, among my students, there were 15 from China sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

After all, the Cultural Revolution was still being fiercely fought, China’s universities were still locked shut, and the Gang of Four must surely have taken a very dim view of bright young future diplomats being thrown into the lap of the capitalist West to learn English. Someone in the ministry was clearly taking big risks.

From those early, discrete beginnings, the flow of Chinese students overseas has grown into a flood. Last year, more than 600,000 mainland Chinese began study abroad, taking the overall total of the nation’s overseas students to just over 1.5 million, according to Caixin, quoting the Ministry of Education.

Over half of them went to the United States, accounting for over one-third of all foreign students studying there. Almost 90 per cent paid their own costs, with US$11 billion spent in the US.

According to many at the White House and some in the US Senate, most of these are spies, or are in the process of stealing secrets, and many are a threat to national security in the US.

Putting such paranoid views to one side, such numbers raise some very interesting questions. Why is it that so many mainland Chinese students flock overseas? And what are the implications?

William Kirby, TM Chang professor of Chinese Studies at Harvard, asks exactly these questions in a chapter in a fascinating new collection of essays from Harvard: The China Questions – Critical Insights Into a Rising Power [1] . Needless to say, the paranoid White House position rings hollow.

The first key insight is that the Chinese habit of studying overseas, in particular in the US, has some very deep roots. Over a century ago, “preparing young men to enter American universities was the founding mission of Tsinghua”. It is hard to think of what today is one of China’s most formidable education institutions as a finishing school preparing Chinese kids for study in the US.

In 1911, Edmund James, president of the University of Illinois, told Theodore Roosevelt: “The nation which succeeds in educating the young Chinese of the present generation will reap the largest possible returns in moral, intellectual and commercial influence.” What a far cry from the foreign security threats being fretted over today.

It was perhaps easy to understand, back during the chaos that prevailed across China through the first half of last century, why so many of China’s elite sent their kids to the US for study.

But why today, when by most accounts China’s own universities have built a strong international reputation, and universities like Tsinghua and Fudan are ranked among the best in the world?

Chinese high school students study late at night for the annual gaokao or college entrance examinations in Handan, Hebei province on 23 May 2018. Photo: EPA

Once upon a time not long ago, university places inside China were so limited that it was easy to understand why so many looked overseas. But today, there are more than 36 million Chinese enrolled in universities inside China compared with just 6 million in 2000, according to the Ministry of Education. More kids graduate every year in China today than in the US and India combined.

The initial answer is obvious. According to Kirby: “beyond the openness and accessibility of American universities there is a widespread perception on the part of Chinese parents that a US education is simply better than a Chinese education.”

Others simply recoil from “China’s examination hell” – the gaokao, or university admission exams, sat on the same day last year by more than 9.4 million university applicants, is an unseemly trauma for many families across the country.

Such is the angst about the gaokao that many elite schools in China have set up parallel study tracks – one preparing for the gaokao, and a second for study abroad.

As Kirby notes: “The strengths of China’s education system are more appreciated abroad than at home … Required classes are large. Good teaching is seldom rewarded. Good jobs do not necessarily await graduates of such a suddenly expanded system.”

But it seems that many Chinese families are implicitly asking a question explicitly posed by Kirby: “can world class universities – however they are defined – exist in a politically illiberal system?”

The question is even more moot when “in the realm of politics and history, the distance between what Chinese university students have to learn to graduate, and what they know to be true, grows greater every year …

“Massive educational migration to the United States may be due less to confidence in American universities than to a sense of doubt and uncertainty about China’s own institutions, especially in its current repressive and insecure political climate.”

This raises a question Kirby does not ask: why does the Beijing leadership continue to allow such large numbers to study abroad and return to influential top jobs, when this foreign experience inevitably exposes them to “polluting” foreign thought that must raise questions about the way China is run and ruled? Out of the 5.2 million students that have studied outside China in the past 40 years, more than 3.1 million, or about 60 per cent, have returned.

Kirby’s question on China’s politically illiberal regime as an incubator for innovation is nevertheless more easily asked than answered.

Global educational performance measures like the Pisa tests suggest that China’s universities – indeed its whole education system – are today home to a large proportion of the most accomplished students on the planet. They are today being credited with an increasing share of leading research in many fields, in particular in the sciences.

Whatever the answer, there must surely be a deep irony that so many in the US leadership are today wringing their hands about Chinese students subverting the US economy and its political system, when back in China the leadership seems so tolerant of potentially “polluted” students returning home to top roles in the economy.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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Andy Chan’s Hong Kong independence hot air will blow over – if we stop fanning the flames

CommentInsight & OpinionHong Kong
Michael Chugani says there is nothing to be gained from giving the Hong Kong National Party convenor undue attention or from clamouring for the Foreign Correspondents’ Club that hosted his talk to be evicted


Let’s have tough national security legislation that jails anyone who uses the word “independence”. And let’s kick the Foreign Correspondents’ Club out of its historic building for fomenting sedition. Turn it into a shopping centre instead. Beijing loyalists want the FCC out and Article 23 legislation in, never mind that such a double whammy could spark another local uprising and global outrage. 

Not that they care. China’s growing clout has emboldened its leaders to scorn international opinion. Do they not understand that the more they attack independence activist Andy Chan Ho-tin, the more prominence they heap on him?

They should learn from Executive Council convenor Bernard Chan. Last week, he told the media, after taking a question about Andy Chan, that he would no longer discuss him because doing so would keep the spotlight on the activist.

Another pro-government Executive Council member, legislative councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, told me in a TV interview that evicting the FCC for hosting a speech by Andy Chan would attract damaging media attention globally. Both Bernard Chan and Ip understand that we should let this firestorm fizzle rather than fan it.

How to knock the same sense into other Beijing loyalists baying for blood? They must understand that evicting the FCC and rushing Article 23 would be like using a megaphone to tell the world Hong Kong is muzzling the media just because of a nonsensical speech by a nobody.

I fully understand that Beijing is spooked by the independence movement taking root after the 2014 Occupy movement and the Mong Kok riot. But Chan lives in another universe. His National Party is a fly without wings. No one takes him seriously except his handful of delusional followers. Even pan-democrats were appalled by his letter asking US President Donald Trump to expel Hong Kong and China from the World Trade Organisation.

Instead of attacking the FCC, Beijing loyalists should thank it for letting Chan make a fool of himself with an independence vision that can only be described as cartoonish. Even Beijing loyalist Maria Tam Wai-chu admits that current laws make it impossible to prosecute him for his speech. Yet the Beijing lobby is behaving as if he has put national security under imminent threat.

Chan couldn’t have been prosecuted even under the 2003 Article 23 legislation that the government killed after half a million Hongkongers protested. Does the Beijing lobby want something harsher still this time around just to cage kooks like Chan?

Is it even possible to draft laws that would specifically ban the kind of non-violent FCC speech Chan gave, or to ban organisations from hosting such speeches? I am no legal expert but I can’t see how. If we push the envelope to make it happen, what’s to stop demands for schools and the media to ban discussions or debates about independence? Surely, that puts our way of life on a slippery slope.

Some, including former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, want the government to tender out the FCC building when its lease expires in 2023. But, seriously, how profitable would it be for anyone to pay market rent for a historic building that requires expensive upkeep?

It’s too small for a shopping centre. No name-brand store would touch it after what happened to the one on Pedder Street, which paid such an exorbitant rent it couldn’t sustain operations there. The sparse pedestrian traffic in the area makes it unappealing anyway.

The government could lease it to yet another rowdy bar since it’s next door to Lan Kwai Fong. Or to a club for the super-rich, further highlighting Hong Kong’s wealth gap. Maybe we could let the historic building stand empty as a reminder it conspired to stir seditious activities. Tour groups could be shown the exact spot where Chan delivered his separatist speech.

Yes, I’m being flippant, but it’s time we let this storm blow over. Keeping it brewing only raises Chan’s profile. It’s time, too, for the media not to take him seriously, since what he says is nonsense anyway.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host